If you at all pay attention to the world of Christendom, you are aware of the fact that a lot of people who claim to follow the teachings of the same book (the Bible) come to vastly different conclusions about what that book teaches. Why is that?

I think there are a lot of reasons: sometimes people read the Bible with less than pure intentions, and that can certainly affect the way it is interpreted. Other times people simply haven’t been trained very well, and this can warp their understandings as well.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that there is such a wide variety in the way the Bible is interpreted stems from the fact that people are very different from one another: we come from different ethnic, social, economic, and geographical backgrounds, and we also have significantly different personal experiences. All of these things combine to make us unique people who look at the world (and Scripture) in unique ways. It just makes sense that we would see some things differently. I recently read an example which illustrates this profound influence that our different backgrounds can have on the way we read and interpret Scripture.[1]

Using the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32), one scholar had readers from different cultures read the story silently and then recount it to someone else. The results were surprising:

  • Only 6 percent of American readers mentioned the famine that came upon the land while the prodigal was in the far country (15.14). In contrast, 100 percent of the recounted the way the prodigal wasted his estate (15.13).
  • When the same exercise was used with residents of St. Petersburg, Russia, 84 percent mentioned the famine while only 34 percent mentioned the squandering.

So what’s the point?

In 1941, the army of Nazi Germany besieged St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) for about 2 1/2 years, leading to the death of 670,000 people (the picture above shows destitute citizens fetching water from a busted water line). The Russians polled in the exercise were survivors of the famine or descendants who had heard of the horrors of it throughout their lives, and thus it was only natural that they would be quick to hear of the problem of famine in the prodigal’s misadventures.

On the other hand, American readers had never experienced famine, but they definitely were familiar with wasteful and excessive lifestyles. It makes sense that they would seize upon these aspects of the parable.

While these differences don’t mean that the two groups would necessarily come to irreconcilably different interpretations of Jesus’ story, the example does illustrate how differences in our backgrounds and experiences can cause us to read the Bible differently, and can impact our interpretations accordingly.

To me, there are at least three implications of this point:

  1. We need to be humble about our interpretations, realizing that they are at least in part influenced by our own personal experiences and backgrounds and thus, subject to bias.
  2. Since Scripture does not have an unlimited number of valid interpretations (if it did, it would be meaningless), it follows that the backgrounds and experiences of some people help them to arrive at valid interpretations, while those of others hinder them from doing so.
  3. The solution is for us to study more and seek God’s guidance in understanding His word! This enables us to learn from each other, discovering the blind spots in our own perspectives and helping others to do the same. God doesn’t intend that His will for our lives be unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean that discerning it through Scripture won’t require time, effort, and practice.

[1] Clayton N. Croy, Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2011), 5-6.